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The Written

Here I will just put it very concisely: you need to be ready to write a lot.

Don’t let your persceptions of traditional scientific writing influence you too much because:

Almost all scientific and technical writing is lousy.

Backing Up Your Claims

Whenever you state a fact in your paper, you need to back it up. Of course, some facts are common knowledge, you don’t need to prove that the sky is blue, for example. However, anything beyond common sense needs to have an explaination or a source.

This is important because it validates your thesis. Too often when I’m editing I’ll make the note “How do you know this?”, “So what?”, and “Expand”. Don’t assume your audience knows the nuance of your topic, explain it to them.

Proper Scope

Since you need to back up each of your claims, it’s important to limit your scope. In a typical 12 page paper, you won’t have room to address huge topics or make massive statements about incredbly complex questions. Limiting your scope to something manageable will keep your writing clear, concise, and valid.

Appropriate Language

Different audiences require different tones. However, you don’t want to use word just to sound smart. If you’re going to use a word, make sure you know what it means. When writing academic papers, avoid slang. At the same time, using colloqiual terms or phrases can be an effective way to ground your readers in something they understand and relate to.

Practical Advice

Here are some practice tips to keep in mind when writing.

  1. Avoid platitudes. In the chapter Critical Thinking, we covered why platitudes are problematic when engaging with critical thinking, those same sentiments are applied to your writing. You want to say something worth saying, and a platitude it not that.

  2. Do not generalize. In the same vein as avoiding platitudes, you want to be careful not to make huge claims that you can not fully back up.

  3. It’s better to understate than to exaggerate. Just as you want to avoid generalizing, it’s better to be reserved in your claims than to be too liberal.

  4. Avoid Repetition. You should assume that your readers are intelligent. Unless you’re repeating in a way that clarifies or adds new information, you don’t want to say the same thing over and over again. You want to avoid repetion. Do not repeat.

  5. Make sure your subjects and verbs agree. Here’s a helpful example: The list of items is on the desk. The items are on the desk.

  6. Avoid double negatives. Double negatives are a fun aspect of the english language, but should not be used in your writing. It is not not confusing.

  7. Avoid sentence fragments. That in itself is a sentence fragment. When doing academic writing, make sure each sentence has at least a subject and a verb.

  8. Don’t over use exclamation marks!! Over using exclamation marks are fine when texting your friend, but not when writing a paper. It sounds informal and makes you seem anxious.

  9. Don’t discount your points. Too often I’ll see someone discount their claim before even making it. An example of this would be saying: “Other scholars might disagree but I think…” If other scholars disagree, bring them up after your claim.

  10. Avoid adjectives and adverbs. While useful in fiction writing and world building, adjectives and adverbs don’t do much for academic writing. If you feel like you have to use an adverb to get your point across, you should pick a different verb.

  11. Use spelling and grammar checking tools. I am awful at spelling, these tools have caught things I haven’t many times.

  12. ALWAYS proof read and edit. You will never write something perfectly the first time round. Proofing your writing will help you avoid embarrassing or silly mistakes.

The Presented

You should repeat this mantra frequently:

Note

Almost all presentations are lousy.

That means that your advice and examples should come from people who are aware of this and are trying an approach to give non-lousy presentations.

Problems to Overcome

Here are some frequent issues with presentations, and our attempt at guidiance in overcoming them.

Mechanical (i.e. slides)

Slides that are bullet lists, or have large chunks of text, are usually awful.

Content

The talk is not that interesting because the content is not good. The speaker does not motivate the subject matter.

Confusion

The lack of a clear plan, so it later feels like it was a jumble of information, with no take-home points.

Dynamics

The speaker’s tone doesn’t work. Not all speakers are lively, but that’s OK: A deadpan speaker can deliver very compelling talks. So the problem is a nuanced one, usually boiling down to the fact that the speaker has not yet found a good synthesis of their speaking style and the way they organize the material.

Another problem that comes up quite frequently, especially in younger presenters, is that of speaking too quickly.

The Solution - a reasonable baseline

Mechanical

The TED organizers have thought about this matter carefully and have come up with good guidelines on preparing slides.

https://www.ted.com/participate/organize-a-local-tedx-event/tedx-organizer-guide/speakers-program/prepare-your-speaker/create-prepare-slides

Following their guidlines on images and text-heaviness will solve most of the mechanical problems. My brief summary of those points is that you tell the story with your voice; the slides just provide visual aids and props. You never read off slides.

Solving these mechanical problems with slides will have a cascade effect that will help solve some other shortcomings as well.

Some more advice from the TED people is at:

https://ideas.ted.com/6-dos-and-donts-for-next-level-slides-from-a-ted-presentation-expert/

In this post they show (item #4) a specific example of going from a first pass with busy graphs to a final graph that is much easier on the audience.

You also get a significant improvement with almost no work by simply shifting your slide aspect ratio from 4x3 to 16x9. Make this setting the default, and you will find it hard to go back.

Content, Confusion, and Dynamics

The talk is not that interesting because the content is not good. The speaker does not motivate the subject matter.

Confusion is generally caused by the lack of a clear plan. Not havng a plan makes your presentation feel like it was a jumble of information, with no take-home points.

Issues with dynamics arise when speaker’s tone doesn’t work. Not all speakers are lively, but that’s OK: A deadpan speaker can deliver very compelling talks. So the problem is a nuanced one, usually boiling down to the fact that the speaker has not yet found a good synthesis of their speaking style and the way they organize the material.

Another problem that comes up quite frequently, especially in younger presenters, is that of speaking too quickly.

The Solution - our proposals

Sorry: I have no simple solutions here. This is part of having done good careful work before you prepare a lecture.

But there are things you can do if you “speak too quickly”: get in the habit of pacing the floor back and forth in front of your projected slide (or in front of your blackboard). As you do so, gesticulate toward parts of your slide, emphasizing that in your voice. Then put pauses after you tell the audience something you want them to think about. This kind of lecture, with pacing around and dynamic behavior on your part, tends to work quite well.

Keeping Your Audience Engaged

Now for the next step toward really gripping your audience. I will give you some prescriptions. You should not take them as gospel (they are my style, after all, not necessarily yours), but rather see how they mix with your own style, and if they are useful.

For some of these I have links to some talks, or articles about talks.

Cognitive Basics: Don’t Tire Your Listeners

Listening to long winded stories, or reading certain materials, forces the listener or reader to do a lot of work to understand how it comes together.

Don’t do that to them.

Your lecture shouldn’t feel like watching the Matrix Movie for the first time; confusing until a brief moment of clarity at the end.

Attitude: The Grizzled Veteran

Here’s a tip I give people when they give talks: talk like you’re a grizzled old-timer in that field. Have fun telling stories and presenting the “insider” view.

This also applies when people are 16 years old: they have experiences and they can present them like veterans.

For example, let’s say you are talking about the C programming language, developed between 1972 and 1973 by Dennis Ritchie at Bell Labs.

You could simply present the facts and say

“C was developed by Dennis Ritchie at Bell Labs between 1972 and 1973”.

Or you could add color as if you were in the room when it happened, and add:

“At the time FORTRAN was the most widely used programming language, but it was only effective for scientific computation and not for systems programming. Back then systems programming was almost entirely done in assembly language, a very detailed language which maps directly [and here you are using hand gestures to drive your point home] to the machine codes. Few people are happy writing big programs in assembly. Rithcie’s genius was to design a language that was good for both low level programming (you really know what’s happening in the hardware when your C program runs) and high level programming (you have high level features like structures). C adoption spread rapidly and Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie re-wrote the early UNIX operating system in C.”

As you tell the story you chuckle and express the fun that an old-timer would have remembering those days when C came onto the scene.

You could then continue by saying that in the 1980s and 1990s C became the choice language for high performance numerical computing, gradually overtaking FORTRAN (although FORTRAN still retains an enduring market share).

And of course that’s all your story-telling: it’s not on the slides. You have been pacing the room and using hand gestures to tell this story.

As an example, those familiar with old Rock and Roll music might remember the song “Sympathy for the Devil”, by the Rolling Stones. The character narrating that song in first person is the ultimate grizzled veteran.

So why would you do all this? Audiences want to feel that they are listening to a key person in the field, someone who was part of the story they are telling (even if only because they studied it). Giving them that feeling makes them enjoy the talk more, be less fatigued, and learn better.

Having said all this, there are valid criticisms to the attitude of the grizzled veteran. One is:

  • It is frivolous and wastes time. A solution: make sure that after every one of those anecdotes you return to a serious part of your project that drives the science forward. Ramble a bit, but then show that you are a no-nonsense researcher pushing forward, not someone trapped in nostalgia.

For the sake of rigor, and to keep up our habit of being hard-nosed and brutally honest in our reporting, I will add some crucial requirements for the speaker who wants to come across like a grizzled veteran:

  • You must have really studied the material so well that you can tell the stories authoritatively. Audiences spot that feeling of depth and they understand when you have assimilated the story, rather than memorized the words in the story.

  • You must be accurate.

  • You must calculate carefully that the stories will give new insight to your audience - otherwise they are indeed a waste of time. The story of Dennis Ritchie shows how this remarkable innovation came out of a crisis that needed a solution, and also paints the picture of a thriving dynamic team at Bell Labs in that period.

Another example: your discussion touches upon Dante. You could say:

“[…] Dante, the medieval Italian pote and writer, […]”

Or, if you intuit that your audience barely knows who Dante was, you could take the opportunity to add:

“Here’s how to visualize the intellectual landscape in Italy in the late 1200s: people had started moving from farmhouses and villages into cities again, reversing a trend that had started with the fall of the Roman Empire. This means that there was a new intellectual pole: earlier the only scholars were monks in monasteries – names you might have heard are Abelard and St. Thomas Aquinas. Now, in the late 1200s you have city-dwelling intellectuals, often drawn from minor nobility or even the bourgeoisie. Dante grew up in this environment in Florence, and he became a poet - by many accounts the greatest poet in the Western canon.”

Motivation: Personal and Global

Always remember that motivation is everything. Repeat this to yourself again and again. You start out by giving the motivation for the work you are presenting.

I suggest offering motivation separated out into two categories:

  1. Your personal motivation - this is where you tell them why you are fascinated by something, what drove you in to this. Keep it brief, but do bring it up: it is part of how you charm an audience into following you more closely.

  2. The “deep in the bones of the world” motivation: this is where you reassure the audience that you and your colleagues understand the nature of the world, and how your research subject fits into it. If you are talking about a narrow result, you still connect it to one of the great themes that drive history.

The second type relates back to the “attitude of the grizzled veteran” suggestion above. Audiences like it when you project that you speak from that depth. The psychological factor is huge: when our up-and-coming generation of young researchers (like you) project a smooth calm competence, audiences really get a lot out of the talk. (Of course part of this is due to the fact that your big-talk subconsciously justifies the time they devote to your talk - but “take the win”: it means they will pay attention and remember more.)

Humor: An Effective Crutch, but is it Useful?

There are debates on how you should use humor in talks, or any discussion. There are convincing reasons to do so (keep the audience engaged), and convincing criticism (it is a crutch - you could work harder and hook your audience without the distractions of jokes).

In addition, humor has to be used carefully since the same joke is perceived differently by different cultures, sub-cultures, and individuals. Some solve this problem by having the humor come out in subtle ways, like carefully pointing out an amusing irony in a situation.

In general I enjoy humorous talks, and remember their points better, so I personally encourage humor in talks – but remember what I said above about the “old-timer storytelling” attitude, when I pointed out the “it is frivolous and wastes time” criticism. A solution is to make sure that after a you take a humorous flight, you quickly return to the serious discussion of the work. This rapid return to serious work creates a subliminal perception of momentum in the audience, and they leave with a feeling that good and important things are happening.

Here are a few lectures I have enjoyed, which highlight different ways in which humor is used or not:

Tim Urban’s “Inside the mind of a master procrastinator”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arj7oStGLkU Tim Urban’s talk is almost entirely humorous, and while his take-away points are valid, the results are also to be seen in a humorous vein.

Paul Bloom’s TED talk on the value of art

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPicL1AWrs8 Paul Bloom’s talk is a serious discussion of how the mind assigns value to things, but all the examples he gives are quite funny.

Julia Galef’s discussion of the “hidden prior”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BrK7X_XlGB8&t=207s Julia Galef mentions a joke in passing, but mostly to make a point about people’s perception of mathematicians. For the rest her talk is serious and to-the-point. I like it as much as others because she discusses and important point carefully.

Not Taking Yourself Too Seriously

Related to the discussion of humor, here are some examples of very carefully prepared parodies of the talks given by thought leaders:

Thought Leader

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZBKX-6Gz6A

John Oliver’s “Todd Talks”

(Before choosing to watch this, remember that John Oliver uses some language intended for mature audiences.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvtp-dKfbco This is part of a longer segment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Rnq1NpHdmw&t=43s

Use these talks to remember that, even though you want to present yourself as a “thought leader”, you should not take yourself too seriously.

A Couple of Pitfalls for the Younger Crowd

Younger researchers will often put “I would like to thank my mentor AAA BBB, and my teacher CCC DDD [and sometimes even a parent]”. I recommend against putting it that way: you are not the center of this story - the science is.

There are a few ways in which professional researchers give credit to their collaborators. It’s usually toward the start of the talk, or at an appropriate moment during the talk. It is phrased as “… this work was done in collaboration with …”, or “… the foundational work for this was done …”

I recommend thinking of the two or three direct influences you have had, and mentioning their specific role in the acknowledgments. This might or might not be your mentor. I’m sure you can find another way to thank your mentor.

Another problem with presentations by young researchers is that they recite verbatim, sometimes even reading from a script.

It is hard to imagine how anyone might have thought this is a good idea: I have been to talks where people did that and I felt “why are they wasting my time?” But apparently it has been taught in some schools as a valid way of giving a presentation. I have even seen people read a presentation from their phone.

Avoiding this requires a bit of work: you have to really learn your material! Of course if you’re giving a talk on something, let us hope that you know it cold. But make that knowledge even more intimate: spend time in your mind visualizing all the things you will discuss, and probe all the possible related issues with your mind, and do a bit of extra reading on those related issues.

Young researchers also often speak very quickly and finish their talk after no time at all. There are techniques for spacing it out.

For example, if you have a slide with a cool picture or quote or plot (as you should), stop for a while, pace back and forth in front of it (or have a sip of water if you are presenting in videocon) - you can either mention what’s cool and how you like looking at those graphs and how to think about the axes, or you can just pause and let the audience look at it.

Or you can dive into the background for something, as we mentioned when discussing the “grizzled veteran” approach; you can also stop to give motivation, possibly with a personal anecdote.

And what if you are terrified? Stage fright is a problem, but most of the time you will find yourself getting over it by starting to talk about your subject - do it right away.

Physicist extraordinaire Richard Feynman tells this story from when he was in his early 20s, a graduate student at Princeton University. His advisor John Wheeler had him give a talk, and invited Wolfgang Pauli, John von Newmann, and Albert Einstein to listen. Feynman was quite nervous, as he recounts in his memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman:

Then the time came to give the talk, and here are these monster minds in front of me, waiting! My first technical talk – and I have this audience! I mean they would put me through the wringer! I remember very clearly seeing my hands shaking as they were pulling out my notes from a brown envelope. But then a miracle occurred, as it has occurred again and again in my life, and it’s very lucky for me: the moment I start to think about the physics, and have to concentrate on what I’m explaining, nothing else occupies my mind–I’m completely immune to being nervous. So after I started to go, I just didn’t know who was in the room. I was only explaining this idea, that’s all.